Pacifist Doctor Found Her Calling During The Vietnam War

Sep 12, 2017

Thousands of medical physicians worked alongside both soldiers and the South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Some of these doctors played a pacifist role while risking their lives.  WPSU intern Kennedey Bell talked with State College resident Marge Nelson, who worked as a doctor during the Vietnam War and was eventually captured as a prisoner of war. 

BELL - When the Vietnam War broke out, Marge Nelson was 24 years old and living in Indianapolis, Indiana. She was studying at Indiana University’s School of Medicine to become a doctor. She grew up as a Quaker and was a conscientious objector. But as she heard about the war, she wanted to find a way that she could help.

NELSON - The American Friends Service Committee knew about my interest in serving overseas. And they contacted me and said, “Would you by any chance be willing to serve with a project we’re starting in Vietnam?” and I said “That's an answer to prayer.”

What AFSC told me is that they have two projects in Quan Ni province, which is in central Vietnam. The first one was a rehab center, a rehabilitation center, for war injured civilians and we would be training at local Vietnamese how to, for example, make artificial limbs and braces so that when we were no longer there, there would be skilled people who could continue to do that service.

The other program that we have then was a pre-K school for refugee children who were living in refugee camps right around the city. Then later we had a program of my going to the province prison across the street from where we live to do sick calls for prisoners there.

BELL - A few months into her time in Vietnam, the director of the pre-school for refugee children invited Nelson to come home with her to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.          

NELSON - Tet was coming up and patients were leaving the hospital if they possibly could. Everybody wanted to be home for Tet and our staff wanted to be home for Tet. It’s a big holiday. Xuan Lan said to me one day, she said, “Would you like to come to Hue to visit me and my family and to see Hue for Tet?” and I said, “Oh, I would love to do that!” So I went up there I think the day before the first day of Tet and she said I’ve arranged for you to stay with Sandy Johnson who is an English teacher in high school where my daughter studies.

BELL - When Nelson arrived in Hue she received a message that several cities nearby were being attacked and that Hue could be next. Nelson and Johnson decided to hide out in Johnson’s bomb shelter   in her living room. While they were there, a group of Vietnamese soldiers invaded their house.

NELSON - And just then I heard a missile coming, and we had heard a lot of missiles and this one was coming very close. So I bolted and ran to get into the bomb shelter and a missile hit the roof of the living room. I said “Sandy, Sandy are you OK?” “I'm      fine.”  She was really disgusted because those soldiers had not moved an inch they just stood there and they were OK. So then they went out, they didn't need a house with a hole in its roof and a couple days later a couple of other soldiers came back and said come with us and they took us to one of their head quarter houses. And ultimately we were registered as prisoners of war.

BELL - Nelson says the prisoner camp wasn’t a typical prison. But it wasn’t pleasant, either.

NELSON - The 35 Vietnamese prisoners they were housed in a shelter you know it’s built of palm leaves and bamboo. They housed us with what I call a family. They were a group of people who were threshing rice for the gorillas. What did we have to eat? Rice twice a day. There were bombing attacks so it wasn’t a picnic.

BELL - Nelson was released a couple of months later, on April 1st 1968. Despite imprisonment, she was determined to complete her term. 

NELSON - Now they asked us, “If we release you do you promise to go home?” Well, yes, of course. We want to see our family and let them know that we’re okay. They never asked us do you promise not to come back? So after three months in the states with my family and testifying before congress and so forth and so on, I went back to Quan Ni to finish my two-year term. And people were so excited to see me!

This interview is a part of WPSU’s radio, television and web project “The Vietnam War: Telling the Pennsylvania Story.”